The council charged with drafting Egypt's new constitution says it will vote on a final draft on Thursday, rushing to finish its work amid widespread protests against President Mohamed Morsy and a walkout by some members.
Fresh clashes broke out near Cairo's Tahrir Square on Wednesday, a day after a massive demonstration against Morsy's decrees that extended his powers last week. Dozens of police officers, backed by trucks firing tear gas, arrested numerous protesters, some of whom were beaten by officers as others continued to throw stones at police.
But Morsy showed no signs of backing away, telling the American magazine Time, "My chief responsibility is to maintain the national ship to go through this transitional period."
"What I can see now is, the Egyptians are free," he said. "They are raising their voices when they are opposing the president and when they are opposing what's going on. And this is very important. It's their right to express and to raise their voices and express their feelings and attitudes. But it's my responsibility. I see things more than they do."
Morsy issued an order November 22 preventing any court from overturning his decisions, essentially allowing him to run the country unchecked until a new constitution is drafted. In a surprise move after days of protests, the constituent assembly that has been drafting Egypt's new constitution said Wednesday it was on the verge of concluding its work.
Essam El-Erian, a senior Morsy adviser, said the council is expected to vote on a final draft Thursday and put it before the Egyptian people for a vote within 15 days. If it passes in that referendum, the controversial decrees would be lifted.
But the move provoked a walkout by a number of the council members. Sameh Ashour, head of the lawyers' syndicate and a former member of the council, said that only 55 of the 100 original members of the assembly remained, and all of them were from Islamist movements such as the Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsy's political movement.
"The Muslim Brotherhood are stealing the constitution," he said. "They are tailoring it according to their view after Coptic church representatives, civil movements, and revolutionary representatives withdrew."
El-Erian said only 22 members had quit, and the remaining ones would take their concerns into consideration when voting Thursday.
"Their brains and (all) their opinions are in the draft," he told CNN's "Amanpour." He denied the process was being rushed, saying the assembly had been at work for six months.
"All Egyptians are waiting for a new constitution reflecting the hopes of the people and dreams of Egyptians during the revolution and to end the suffering of Egyptians for more than 60 years under dictatorship and totalitarianism," he said.
But the move to swiftly ratify a new national charter drew a vehement reaction from one of the constitutional council's former members, Ayman Nour.
"This cannot happen," said Nour, a former presidential hopeful who quit the assembly earlier this year. "It would be the biggest treason in Egypt's history."
Morsy and his backers described last week's decree as an attempt to preserve the fragile Arab Spring revolution that pushed longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak from power and led to the country's first free elections. But critics have called it an unprecedented power grab, and a Monday night statement declaring the edict applied only to "sovereign matters" did nothing to defuse their anger.
Egyptians packed Tahrir Square past midnight Tuesday in what observers said were the biggest protests since Mubarak's ouster in 2011, calling on Morsy to reverse his decree or resign. While that demonstration was largely peaceful, one man died from inhaling tear gas during a fight between demonstrators and police nearby, and more than 400 people were injured in protests across Cairo and around the country.
Aly Hassan, a judicial analyst affiliated with the Ministry of Justice, said he was surprised at the move, since Morsy's decree gave the constituent assembly an extra two months to complete their work.
"This could be a way for him to get out of this debacle without reversing his decree and decisions," Hassan suggested.
Brookings Institution analyst H. A. Hellyer said the sudden push could be an attempt to take some of the heat off of Morsy, Egypt's first freely elected leader. Hellyer, who is currently in Cairo, considers that Morsy has "put himself in a tricky position" by issuing the edict because it has made it very difficult for him to compromise.
"I think his advisers are figuring out a way where he can climb down a little bit to defuse the situation without coming across as weak," he told CNN.
Despite critics' concerns over its drafting, the constitution would likely pass in a referendum because many Egyptians crave stability after months of uncertainty, he said. Islamist groups may also cast the decision in a religious light. But Hellyer said the huge numbers that turned out Tuesday -- a workday -- show that significant numbers of Egyptians from all backgrounds are unhappy over the president's assumption of new powers.
"If the protesters can keep up the momentum for another couple of days, they hit Friday, a day off. If they can do something quite intense on Friday, then that may push the presidency in an awkward position," Hellyer said.
It is also unclear whether Morsy would then give up his additional powers immediately, or whether he will keep hold of them until a parliament is formed, he said.
Analysis: Morsy makes his move
The Muslim Brotherhood has attempted to rally support for Morsy during the row. It dismissed Tuesday's protests and plans nationwide protests Saturday in support of the president and his decree, spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said Wednesday. The Brotherhood called off a planned "million man" protest Monday amid concerns over potential violence.
Meanwhile, Egypt's judges have responded to the decrees by shutting down courts around the country. All but seven of Egypt's 34 courts and 90% of its prosecutors went on strike Monday in protest, said Judge Mohamed al Zind of the Egyptian Judge's Club. He described Morsy's edict as "the most vicious ... attack on the judicial authority's independence."